One week before House Republicans shut down the government in an effort to force President Obama to enact many of their preferred policies, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote House members requesting that the government be shut down — and potentially that the nation be forced into default — unless religious employers were given a special right to deny birth control coverage to their employees. As Adele Stan reports, a letter signed by Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston and Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore told lawmakers that, “[w]e have already urged you to enact the Health Care Conscience Rights Act (H.R. 940/S. 1204). As Congress considers a Continuing Resolution and debt ceiling bill in the days to come, we reaffirm the vital importance of incorporating the policy of this bill into such ‘must-pass’ legislation.”
The “Health Care Conscience Rights Act” permits religious employers to exclude any “item or service to which [they have] a moral or religious objection” from the health insurance package offered to employees.
Shortly after the Obama Administration announced rules requiring most employers to provide birth control to their employees, the Bishops rebelled, offering an unusually expansive reading of the Constitution and of a federal religious liberty law to claim that these rules are invalid. Their letter demanding a shut down unless they get their way on birth control, however, is a major escalation from their previous position. It is one thing to request a carve out from a law you do not want to follow while the rest of the nation continues its business around you, but it’s another thing altogether to demand that the government shut down because you are unhappy with the current state of the law. In this regard, the Bishops’ tactic is identical to that of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who insisted on a shut down unless he got his way on health care.
Except that, unlike Ted Cruz, the Bishops speak on behalf of a church that claims that government has a responsibility to “protect human life and dignity, care for poor and vulnerable people at home and abroad, and advance the universal common good.” Because of the government shutdown, mothers and young children risk losing their benefits under the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) nutrition program. Many Head Start programs halted educational services to low-income children. And federal funds are shut off to many domestic violence programs.
And that’s nothing compared to what happens if Congress does not raise the debt ceiling fast enough to ward off a default.
According to the Treasury Department, a default could lead to “a recession more severe than any seen since the Great Depression” — potentially plunging millions into poverty along the way. Thanks to the last recession that we are still recovering from, 3 million more people lived in poverty in 2012 than in 2009. A debt default could make Americans pine for the days shortly after Lehman Brothers collapsed.
And yet, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops were willing to risk all of this in order to make it harder for many women to obtain birth control. They read Jesus’ plea that “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me,” and they decided instead to take the “least of these brothers and sister” hostage over contraception.